WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military was closely tracking a one-eyed bandit across the Sahara in 2003 when it confronted a hard choice that is still reverberating a decade later. Should it try to kill or capture the target, an Algerian jihadist named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, or let him go?
Mr. Belmokhtar had trained at camps in Afghanistan, returned home to join a bloody revolt and was about to be blacklisted by the United Nations for supporting the Taliban and al-Qaida. But he hadn't attacked Americans -- not yet -- and did not appear to pose a threat outside his nomadic range in the badlands of northern Mali and southern Algeria.
Military commanders planned to launch airstrikes against Mr. Belmokhtar and a band of Arabs they had under surveillance in the Malian desert, according to three current and former U.S. officials familiar with the episode. But the U.S. ambassador to Mali at the time said she vetoed the plan, arguing that a strike was too risky and could stir a backlash against Americans.
Since then, Mr. Belmokhtar has gradually built an al-Qaida-branded network while expanding his exploits as a serial kidnapper, smuggler and arms dealer. Last month, his group, Signatories in Blood, took dozens of hostages at an Algerian natural gas complex. At least 38 foreign captives were killed, including three Americans.
Besides raising his global profile, the spectacular attack turned Mr. Belmokhtar into a symbol of how the United States over the past 10 years bungled an ambitious strategy to prevent al-Qaida from gaining a foothold in North and West Africa.
The U.S. government has invested heavily in counterterrorism programs in the region, spending more than $1 billion since 2005 to train security forces, secure borders, promote democracy, reduce poverty and spread propaganda. By stabilizing weak African countries, the goal was to keep al-Qaida out and obviate the need to send U.S. combat forces into the Sahara.
Despite those efforts, Mr. Belmokhtar's group and a hazy array of other jihadist factions and rebellious tribesmen seized control of the northern half of Mali last year. In March, a U.S.-trained Malian officer carried out a coup, further plunging the country into chaos.
By 2003, U.S. officials were becoming alarmed about the potential for Islamist extremists to establish a haven in North or West Africa. Radicals who failed to topple the Algerian government in the 1990s had moved deep into the Sahara, hiding in the hinterlands of impoverished countries such as Mali, Mauritania and Niger, where they turned to smuggling and other criminal rackets.
Among them was a former paratrooper known as Abderrazak Al Para, who kidnapped 32 Europeans and collected $6 million in ransom. No U.S. hostages were involved in that, but the incident drew the attention of the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. Using satellite imagery and other sources, the U.S. military tracked Mr. Al Para and shared intelligence with African governments, which, after an epic desert chase, captured him in Chad.
Around the same time, the U.S. military also started to track Mr. Belmokhtar and floated a plan to fire missiles into an Arab camp in northern Mali. Vicki Huddleston, then U.S. ambassador to Mali, said she blocked the operation. It was unclear if Mr. Belmokhtar was actually present, and he was considered a minor figure, she recalled in an interview.
Charles Wald, the four-star now-retired Air Force general in charge, acknowledged he wanted to nab Mr. Belmokhtar, but insisted airstrikes were not a serious option. He said the U.S. military wanted to share intelligence and gear with Algeria and Mali, so they could arrest or kill Mr. Belmokhtar, but civilian U.S. leaders refused.
Ten years later, the general and ambassador still disagree over whether they should have seized that chance to eliminate Mr. Belmokhtar. But they concur that the dispute foreshadowed flaws in the U.S. strategy to prevent al-Qaida from planting roots in the region.
Ms. Huddleston was later appointed by President Barack Obama as the top Africa policy official in the Pentagon, where she earned a reputation among former diplomatic colleagues as a zealous hawk on security matters. She said the U.S. government never overcame divisions over how aggressively it should respond to the emergence of al-Qaida's North African affiliate.
The failure to keep Islamist extremists from taking over northern Mali was not for lack of U.S. money or attention.
In 2005, the U.S. government started the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership -- the innovative, $1 billion collection of programs designed to prevent the spread of radicalism. It delivered humanitarian and security aid to 10 countries in North and West Africa, drawing on the combined resources of the military, State Department and the Agency for International Development.
In 2007, the Bush administration created a separate Africa Command to oversee military activity on the continent, fueling fears among Africans that the United States was militarizing its foreign policy and looking to construct new bases. Facing a backlash, the Pentagon was forced to call off its search for an African command headquarters and remained in Germany instead.
Mr. Wald, the retired general, said the whole approach was misguided. "The Africans didn't want us there in the first place, so they started out behind the power curve to start with. We can't lead them around condescendingly."
In 2008, the Government Accountability Office criticized the Pentagon, State Department and USAID for lacking a "comprehensive, integrated strategy" for the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership. The investigative arm of Congress found the agencies didn't collaborate well and couldn't measure whether the aid was doing any good.
The U.S. strategy for the region began to fall apart in 2009. Military leaders in Mauritania and Niger, two nations that bookend Mali, toppled their governments in coups, forcing the Pentagon to cut off military training. That left it more dependent on Mali to spearhead the U.S. anti-terrorism programs, even as it was becoming clear that Malian troops weren't up to it.